There are two types of NFL contracts. The first is the rookie contracts players sign after they are drafted, which are based almost entirely on when the player was selected. Rookies used to be overpaid, but people got mad about it, so now rookies are underpaid. But players who can produce at the pro level can sign a bigger contract for far more money when their rookie deals expire.
Those deals are classified as veteran contracts. But these deals are often fool’s gold. When an NFL veteran signs their second contract (or third, or fourth) they are signing a deal guaranteed for one or two seasons followed by multiple years of team options. If the player is overperforming the contract after the first couple of years, the team holds them to the agreement they signed. If the team feels the player is underperforming, the organization terminates the deal with little-to-no penalty. The result is that veterans rarely finish the contracts they sign. Veterans have a higher chance of being released one year into a multiyear contract than finishing the deal, and that’s true for players whether their deal lasts for two, three, four, or five years. For example, when the Buccaneers cut defensive tackle Gerald McCoy three years into his six-year contract in May, it wasn’t an anomaly—it was representative of how NFL teams do business.
The players who don’t get released are underpaid, and that’s who we are looking at here. Below is the most underpaid veteran on each NFC team. (On Wednesday, we’ll look at the AFC.) A few examples are star players currently getting big bucks, but who deserve even bigger bucks at their position, like Julio Jones. But most of the players on this list are outperforming the deal they signed.
Dallas Cowboys: Tyron Smith, Tackle
Contract: Eight years for $97.6 million (signed 2014)
The fine print: $22 million over the first two years followed by team options in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023
Total guaranteed at signing: $22.1 million (10th among offensive tackles)
Average annual value: $12.2 million (11th among offensive tackles)
2019 salary and bonuses: $10 million (16th among offensive tackles)
Dallas drafted Smith no. 9 overall in 2011 and instantly slotted him in as the starting left tackle at just 20 years old. He was the youngest player in the league at the time. Three years into Smith’s career, Dallas inked him to an eight-year contract extension that made his total deal worth $109.7 million over 10 seasons. A long contract is a bad deal for an elite player in a league in which revenue grows handily. The salary cap was $133 million in 2014, but it’s $188.2 million for 2019. So while the Cowboys have 41.5 percent more money to spend, Smith hasn’t had a raise in five seasons. The Cowboys essentially locked up one of the best tackles of his generation for his entire career. Inferior tackles like Trent Brown and Nate Solder are earning far more, and because of the length of Smith’s deal, he has little chance to do anything about it.
Philadelphia Eagles: Malcolm Jenkins, Safety
Contract: Four years for $35 million (signed 2016)
The fine print: $21 million guaranteed through three years, followed by team options in 2019 and 2020
Total guaranteed at signing: $16 million (10th among safeties)
Average annual value: $8.8 million (ninth among safeties)
2019 salary and bonuses: $8.4 million (12th among safeties)
Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson is also a contender here, but Jenkins wins the tiebreaker because he has openly discussed wanting a new deal. Jenkins was a pillar on Philly’s defense for the past three years, including during its Super Bowl run. Yet Kansas City’s Tyrann Mathieu and New York’s Landon Collins signed deals for $14 million annually, or 60 percent more per year than Jenkins makes. Considering Mathieu is on his third team in three years, it’s eyebrow-raising.
“I think like any other business, you look at what the market value is, and based off your production, what your value is,” Jenkins told PhillyVoice in June. “When you’re under contract, you can’t be the highest-paid out there, nor do I want to be. But you want to be in a ballpark of what your value is. But I can’t control that.”
Washington: Ryan Kerrigan, Defensive End
Contract: Five years for $57.5 million (signed 2015)
The fine print: $24 million over the first two years followed by team options in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020
Total guaranteed at signing: $23.8 million (18th among edge defenders)
Average annual value: $11.5 million (tied for 26th among edge defenders)
2019 salary and bonuses: $10.8 million (tied for 26th among edge defenders)
Remember this for your next trivia night. Since 2014, Von Miller has the most sacks in the NFL. Ryan Kerrigan—yes, Ryan Kerrigan—is second. We’re conditioned to believe sacks lead to paydays, but while Kerrigan has the second-most sacks in the past five years, he is the 55th-highest-paid defender in football, while six of the top eight are among the league’s highest-paid players.
Sack Leaders Since 2014 vs. Average Annual Salary in 2019
|Player||Games||Sacks||Sacks||Average Salary (Average Annual Salary Ranked Among Defenders)|
|Player||Games||Sacks||Sacks||Average Salary (Average Annual Salary Ranked Among Defenders)|
|Von Miller||80||80||63||$19 million (fifth)|
|Ryan Kerrigan||80||80||60||$11.5 million (55th)|
|Aaron Donald||78||74||59.5||$22.5 million (second)|
|Chandler Jones||73||71||59.5||$16.5 million (tied-14th)|
|J.J. Watt||56||56||55.5||$16.7 million (12th)|
|Khalil Mack||78||77||53||$23.5 million (first)|
|Justin Houston||59||59||52||$12 million (51st)|
|Cameron Jordan||80||80||50||$17.5 million (seventh)|
Kerrigan has never had 14 sacks in a season, but he’s also never had fewer than 8.5 since his rookie year, and he hasn’t missed a game in his eight-year career.
New York Giants: Michael Thomas, Safety
Contract: Two years for $4 million (signed 2018)
The fine print: $2 million in Year 1 with a team option for 2019
Total guaranteed at signing: $800,000 (tied for 75th among safeties)
Average annual Value: $2 million (tied for 53rd among safeties)
2019 salary and bonuses: $2 million (tied for 52nd among safeties)
The other Michael Thomas signed with the Giants last year and was quickly named a special teams captain. By the end of the season, Thomas was starting for the Giants’ depleted secondary, and he graded out 42nd among all safeties according to Pro Football Focus—only three spots behind Landon Collins, who signed with Washington for $26 million guaranteed this offseason. Thomas was the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year honoree (an award for community service dedication), and on special teams the Giants went from the worst special teams unit by DVOA in 2017 to third best in 2018, the same year Thomas earned a Pro Bowl nomination.
Chicago Bears: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Safety
Contract: One year for $3 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $3 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $500,000 (tied for 93rd among safeties)
Average annual value: $3 million (39th among safeties)
2019 salary and bonuses: $3.3 million (tied for 34th among safeties)
Clinton-Dix played last year on an expiring contract, and in October, Green Bay dealt him to Washington for a fourth-rounder. Washington did not re-sign Clinton-Dix despite the team’s love for Alabama players.
Plenty of safeties got paid top-of-the-market deals this March, including Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, and Tyrann Mathieu, but Clinton-Dix was not one of them. He signed a disappointing prove-it deal with the Bears, though it has more upside than most one-year contracts. The Bears secondary—which includes fellow former Alabama safety and 2018 first-team All-Pro Eddie Jackson—is the most talented group he’s ever played with and benefits from a fierce pass rush in the front seven. A strong year for Clinton-Dix could rejuvenate his value. The man he’s replacing in the Chicago secondary, Adrian Amos, signed with Green Bay this offseason to fill the hole Clinton-Dix left after four and a half seasons there.
Minnesota Vikings: Anthony Harris, Safety
Contract: One year for $3.1 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $3.1 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $0
Average annual value: $3.1 million (38th among safeties)
2019 salary and bonuses: $3.1 million (tied for 37th among safeties)
Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Danielle Hunter, Eversen Griffen, Linval Joseph, Riley Reiff, Kyle Rudolph—the Vikings pay their veterans big bucks. That’s why they currently have the second-least available cap room in the league at $5.2 million. It also makes them one of the hardest teams for this exercise, but Anthony Harris is the lone starter on Minnesota’s defense that hasn’t hit pay dirt. Harris, an undrafted free agent out of Virginia in 2015, has gone from good to great in his four seasons, and rose to be the fifth-highest-graded safety by Pro Football Focus in his first season with serious playing time. He was a restricted free agent this offseason, so Minnesota managed to tender him for just a few million dollars, but he may be one of the most desirable players on the market if he hits full free agency anytime soon.
Green Bay Packers: David Bakhtiari, Tackle
Contract: Four years for $48 million (signed 2016)
The fine print: Two years for $19.6 million followed by team options in 2018, 2019, and 2020
Total guaranteed at signing: $16.7 million (19th among offensive tackles)
Average annual value: $12 million (tied for 12th among offensive tackles)
2019 salary and bonuses: $11 million (tied for 15th among offensive tackles)
Bakhtiari signed his deal in 2016 and promptly became the best tackle in football. He has been Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded blocker—at any position—for three years in a row. He embarrasses opposing linemen and even his own quarterback when necessary.
The Packers made Rodgers the highest-paid player in football history last year, but the only player in Green Bay who is undoubtedly the best at his position is the man protecting him. If Bakhtiari hit free agency, he’d probably double his salary.
Detroit Lions: Marvin Jones Jr., Receiver
Contract: Five years for $40 million (signed 2016)
The fine print: One year guaranteed followed by team options in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020
Total guaranteed at signing: $13 million (tied for 28th among receivers)
Average annual value: $8 million (tied for 30th among receivers)
2019 salary and bonuses: $6.5 million (36th among receivers)
Jones does not get paid like a no. 1 receiver, but he’s often filled the role. In 2017, he was ninth in the league in receiving yards and outdid Golden Tate in yards and touchdowns. Jones got hurt midway through the 2018 campaign, but the Lions traded Golden Tate to Philadelphia last season and did little to replace him besides draft first-round tight end T.J. Hockenson. Jones and Kenny Golladay could be more of a 1A–1B receiving duo this year, and if Jones comes anywhere near his 2017 numbers, he’ll be among the league’s top wideout for roughly a third of the others’ prices.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees, Quarterback
Contract: Two years for $50 million (signed 2018)
The fine print: Two years for $50 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $20.7 million (25th among quarterbacks)
Average annual value: $25.5 million (tied for ninth among quarterbacks)
2019 salary and bonuses: $23 million (seventh among quarterbacks)
Tom Brady famously takes less money to help the Patriots with their salary cap, but Drew Brees also takes a hefty pay cut. The NFL’s all-time leading passer by yardage is set to earn $23 million in 2019—a mind-boggling figure for most, but on par with Joe Flacco’s and Alex Smith’s average annual salaries. Brees has led the league in completion percentage or passing yards in 11 of his 13 seasons in New Orleans, and he is getting more accurate with age. Not only did Brees lead the league in traditional completion percentage in 2018, but he also led the league in NFL Next Gen Stats’ completion percentage above expectation, which accounts for where receivers and defenders are on the field (not all pass attempts are equal).
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones, Receiver
Contract: Five years for $71.3 million (signed 2015)
The fine print: Two years guaranteed followed by team options in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020
Total guaranteed at signing: $35.5 million (fourth among receivers)
Average annual value: $14.3 million (12th among receivers)
2019 salary and bonuses: $9.6 million (26th among receivers)
Jones has a strong case as the best receiver in football. He has led the league in receiving yards per game in three of the past four seasons and led the league in Pro Football Focus’s yards per route run in each of the past four years. But Jones is not paid on par with some players who have barely scratched his production, like Sammy Watkins and Jarvis Landry. Jones is confident the Falcons will give him a new contract before training camp begins, so it seems Atlanta agrees he is underpaid.
Carolina Panthers: Kyle Love, Defensive Tackle
Contract: One year for $1.4 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $1.4 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $200,000 (99th among defensive tackles)
Average annual value: $1.4 million (66th among defensive tackles)
2019 salary and bonuses: $1.4 million (66th among defensive tackles)
The 32-year-old Love was on the roster bubble before the 2018 season, but the Panthers retained him and he submitted perhaps the best season of his career. He started two games but still played just under half of Carolina’s snaps on defense. He was the third-highest-graded defender on the Panthers in 2018, behind only inside linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Kawann Short. The Panthers kept Love in house for 2019 with a $1.4 million deal, well worth the stability for a defense that just lost Julius Peppers to retirement and let Thomas Davis go in free agency.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Demar Dotson, Tackle
Contract: Three years for $16.5 million (signed 2016)
The fine print: One year for $4.3 million followed by team options in 2017, 2018, and 2019
Total guaranteed at signing: $4.3 million (56th among offensive tackles)
Average annual value: $5.5 million (35th among offensive tackles)
2019 salary and bonuses: $4.8 million (44th among offensive tackles)
An undrafted free agent out of Southern Miss in 2009, Dotson has been Tampa Bay’s starting right tackle since 2012. Dotson has seen the Bucs pay many of his fellow linemen in that time, including center Ryan Jensen ($10.5 million average annual salary), guard Ali Marpet ($10.8 million), and left tackle Donovan Smith ($13.8 million). Dotson had the 17th-highest pass-blocking grade among all tackles and gave up just two quarterback hits in 2018 according to PFF, but he’s one of the lowest-paid starting tackles in the league.
Los Angeles Rams: Robert Woods, Receiver
Contract: Five years for $34 million (signed 2017)
The fine print: $15 million guaranteed for the first two years followed by team options in 2019, 2020, and 2021
Total guaranteed at signing: $10 million (tied for 42nd among receivers)
Average annual value: $6.8 million (36th among receivers)
2019 salary and bonuses: $5.5 million (tied for 40th among receivers)
Woods started his career in Buffalo, which had perhaps the worst-designed pass offense in football. He signed with the Rams in free agency in 2017 and found himself working in Sean McVay’s system, which is perhaps the best offense in football. Woods has subsequently flourished. He had 1,219 receiving yards last year, the 13th most in football and more than teammate Brandin Cooks, who makes more than twice as much per year. Many of the players who had more receiving yards than Woods last year are either among the league’s highest-paid players (DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown, Adam Thielen) or will soon be joining them (Michael Thomas, Julio Jones). Woods is locked up through 2021 at half of their annual salaries.
Seattle Seahawks: Bobby Wagner, Inside Linebacker
Contract: Four years for $43 million (signed 2015)
The fine print: $20 million guaranteed over the first three years, followed by team options in 2018 and 2019
Total guaranteed at signing: $20 million (fifth among inside linebackers)
Average annual value: $10.8 million (fourth among inside linebackers)
2019 salary and bonuses: $11.4 million (fifth among inside linebackers)
Wagner deserves to be the highest-paid inside linebacker in the league, and my colleague Robert Mays made an elaborate case for why Wagner deserves to be one of the highest-paid defenders regardless of position. He’s likely to get a new contract soon, but odds are even his new deal won’t reflect his true value. The only two players to be named first-team All-Pro the past three seasons are Wagner and Aaron Donald.
San Francisco 49ers: Laken Tomlinson, Guard
Contract: Three years for $16.5 million (signed 2018)
The fine print: $10 million over the first two years followed by team options in 2020 and 2021
Total guaranteed at signing: $6.6 million (32nd among guards)
Average annual value: $5.5 million (tied for 25th among guards)
2019 salary and bonuses: $2.5 million (tied for 44th among guards)
Tomlinson was one of 18 guards to play more than 1,000 snaps last year, and he ranked ninth in pass-blocking grades by PFF among the players in that group—three spots behind the league’s best guard in Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda, two spots behind everyone’s favorite lineman in Indianapolis’s Quenton Nelson, and one spot behind Tampa Bay’s Ali Marpet, who is making twice as much as Tomlinson.
Arizona Cardinals: Andy Lee, Punter
Contract: Two years at $5.3 million (Signed 2018)
The fine print: $2 million guaranteed for 2019 with a team option for 2020
Total guaranteed at signing: $2 million (32nd among punters)
Average annual value: $2.63 million (10th among punters)
2019 salary and bonuses: $2 million (12th among punters)
The Cardinals are depleted, which forces us to turn to a punter. Lee may no longer be the best punter in the league, but he is the most overworked. He led the league in punts (94) and punt yardage (4,568) for an Arizona team that was historically bad on offense. If Lee had worked a per-punt escalator into his deal, he might be the richest punter ever. Hopefully he’ll have less work to do with Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury at the helm in 2019.